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Industry News / Manufacturing/Services

Whither (or wither) WiMAX?

April 14, 2009
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Amid ongoing speculation of an early market crash for mobile broadband wunderkind WiMAX technology, a new study from telecom consultancy ABI Research finds that WiMAX has legs after all. Despite early reversals on the vendor front, such as Nortel’s exit from mobile WiMAX and Alcatel-Lucent “backing off” on its continuing development, and more broadly, the alleged delays in general deployment this has caused for national WiMAX provider Clearwire, WiMAX remains a growth market, according to ABI. The report’s accompanying press release pegs that growth rate at 4,500 percent in 2009 alone.

According to ABI’s “WiMAX Market Analysis and Forecasts”, which examines major drivers and barriers for WiMAX and the potential for mobile WiMAX devices and services, WiMAX is well-suited to a number of markets besides traditional mobile operator networks, such as data-centric deployments in both developed and developing regions.

“Nortel exited the mobile WiMAX market because it failed to become competitive and win any significant business,” writes ABI in a statement on the report, authored by principal analyst Philip Solis. “Nortel is staying in the fixed WiMAX market. Alcatel-Lucent didn’t really back away from mobile WiMAX, but rather views it more as a wireless broadband solution than a fully mobile wireless solution. Alcatel-Lucent moved R&D spending from WiMAX to LTE since WiMAX is productized while LTE is just starting to develop.

“Contrary to the popular view, Alcatel-Lucent is still quite involved with mobile WiMAX,” Solis continued. “The company has had its 3.5 GHz products certified by the WiMAX Forum; its ‘ng Connect’ program includes mobile WiMAX; and it is working with Intel on an interoperability program for mobile WiMAX devices.”

“The lines are very blurred between fixed/portable use of mobile WiMAX and fixed/portable/mobile use of mobile WiMAX. Many deployments will start with fixed and portable services first and may evolve to fully mobile use later… Growth will be more modest for WiMAX base stations by themselves for 2009, but 2010 will see healthy expansion.”

ABI’s findings come just two weeks after similar market prognostications from other analysis firms. Last week, In-Stat opined that both WiMAX and LTE had long-term futures, but that WiMAX will be the market share winner for the foreseeable future; it pegs growth at 82 million for WiMAX-equipped PCs, as compared to 23 million subscribers for LTE, by 2013.

And IDC Research issued its Q4 2008 report on WiMAX Equipment, Devices and Subscribers, which held that the mobile WiMAX market was up overall 5 percent over the previous quarter, although fixed WiMAX did see a “slight dip.” Overall, IDC found that the number of fixed and mobile WiMAX subscribers for 2008 hit 3.9 million, up 120 percent from 2007, and that even though the variety of equipment is still limited, WiMAX devices grew 121 percent in 2008, and mobile WiMAX network gear grew 188 percent. It’s expected that strong CPE sales will push overall mobile WiMAX growth this year, due to the rollout of more services and greater subscriber adoption rates, despite the sluggish economy and lagging infrastructure build-outs.

“The WiMAX market will be leaner in 2009, leading vendors to rationalize their strategies: Nortel has exited, Alcatel-Lucent has transitioned its mobility R&D to its LTE program [see above], and others will have their commitment to WiMAX tested,” writes Richard Webb, Directing Analyst at IDC, in commenting on his report. “As the year progresses, we will see more intense competition for the fewer new contracts, and a tight race for market leadership. Currently Alvarion, Alcatel-Lucent and Motorola lead the field, but there is evidence to suggest that both Huawei and Cisco are coming up on the outside lane.”

While LTE proponents and industry observers still have their doubts about WiMAX, it is interesting to note the current fate of Clearwire, where there are both encouraging and troubling signs of progress. Clearwire reported $118 million on its Q4 earnings, compared to $108.3 million the previous quarter, but service revenues were up from $45.4 million to $59.7 million year-over-year. The news, though mixed, didn’t seem to dampen the carrier’s enthusiasm for rolling out their services nationally; it plans to cover a potential 120 million customers by year-end 2010, and says its network buildout is adequately funded into 2011.

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